The Productivity Myth: Step Away From the Twitter – Get Back to Work

Ever since I posted a how-to on establishing guidelines for social media in the workplace, the issue that has generated the most energy concerns productivity. Employers it seems are very worried about lost productivity due to social media usage (Facebook, Twitter etc.).

I can’t really get my arms around it because I don’t think these tools bring out any really new productivity concerns (and yes I am aware of operant conditioning).

The fact is that there are already tons of other outside distractions at work ranging from instant message, email, workplace socializing and the never ending cigarette break – so this is not a new problem – but an old concern applied to a new technology; similar to what we see when the ranks of psychologists hit the TV news circuit to describe some new addiction caused by technology. I don’t buy it. Do you?

During the same time that Facebook grew from 100 million users to 200 million and Twitter went Oprah (March ’08 to March ’09) U.S business sector productivity has increased 2.0 percent. This is a bit off the recent historic rate 2.5% – but I don’t think anyone during this recession is blaming that on Twitter.

Companies that think they may have a productivity problem because of social networks and the like actually have a measurement problem – that is – they don’t know how to objectively measure whether an employee is meeting standards of productivity. In the absence of clear measurement – they resort to punitive actions (blocking these sites, monitoring employee behavior) that can damage morale and trust. If your sales team is nailing their numbers do you care if they are on Facebook? If your call center is handling volume with great customer satisfaction – do you care if they use Twitter?

Lastly, most companies don’t recognize that they often expect employees to check email after hours and bring work home when needed. If this is the expectation then blocking employees from accessing these social sites during “work hours” is not a fair bargain.

My recommendation for companies is to clarify job performance criteria and establish clear guidelines on how to productively engage social media (social media savvy employees are an asset not a liability)… and to build those guidelines collaboratively with their employees using these very same technologies. My favorite guideline comes from IBM (they have the best guidelines that I know of) which says, “Don’t forget your day job” Enough said.

  • Pat

    Your title is misleading (though I’m sure it leads to more hits)… You neither prove nor disprove the productivity impact of social media. Your arguments are plausible and should all be considered but — as you note — what’s really missing is quantitative data.

    So, why label it a “myth” if you don’t know either?

  • GP

    I totally agree that most companies have a measurement problem. At my last company, about 50% of the BD and sales team spent 100% of their time on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, email, IM, etc.) by the time I left. These employees never hit their goals, but the company lacked any job performance criteria they could use to show that these employees were failing.
    However, an interesting thing happened during the 5 years I was there. As more social media outlets became available to these employees that chose to engage as much of their time as possible using them, the other employees who were self-motivated and were able to effectively budget their time (between work and other outlets including social media), became MORE productive. Over the course of that time, I noticed I was involved in fewer directionless meetings, was able to spend more time on tasks without interruption, and generally found myself interacting with those who I had a greater deal of professional respect for, and that appeared to be “marching to the same drum” as me.
    I doubt this is the reason for the inverse correlation between social media use and business productivity you point out – there is no evidence for that correlation in the first place. However, in this case, the use of those outlets by some, opened up the “Doers” and “Makers” to achieve at a much higher level.

  • Measuring productivity is always the problem.

    How can a company accurately record and measure the number of customer complaints that are dealt with on Twitter?

    Likewise, how can you measure the intangible benefits of employees building relationships with customers and suppliers through twitter.

    Good post… but what would you suggest companies do to quantify how Twitter is benefiting / hurting them?

  • Going back to Windows 3.0, at least, “lots of studies” have shown that the PC in the office has decreased productivity. Twitter would be no different. The PC just gave folks a way to worry about the lipstick (“is this the right font for the title? or should I use Verdana?”), rather than the pig (“what the hell am I trying to do?”). Twitter gives people the opportunity to gossip about any old batcrap festering in their lower brainstems. This is progress?

  • IBM has got it right. It makes me chuckle a little to say that. Robert Young hit it on the head, too, with the windows 3.0 parallel. There was an article in a 1995 special issue of Scientific American reporting that Newsday had taken away employees’ (including reporters’) ability to send email. Can you imagine that in today’s day and age? No one knows whether the social media extravaganza is going to to prove profitable for employers, and many employers are getting unrealistic about measurement. This lesson of history should tell us that you cannot measure possible growth of an unknown quantity. We can only speculate, but I think IBM (the employer of people), with it’s “lots of tolerance” policy, is going to navigate these waters quite well.

  • Tom Potts

    Have to agree with Robert and Jim there – except for one thing: There are a lot more transistors out there to encourage people to worry about the lipstick and not the pig.
    Software for chip design helps you do your job – even encourages you to think about it. Software for the office merely allows you to talk about it a lot while emulating 19th century technology.
    As for the 2% growth – there seems to be a rule about economic growth that sets it at 2% annually too!!

  • BLM

    I have been working in IT since the 80s. I remember that I would see people with newspapers at their desk reading them. Or hanging out in the hallways or popping into your office/cubicle for a chat. They didn’t need and you don’t need computers or social media to be unproductive. They just need to be unmotivated or constrained.

    Whether you use a pen and paper to design a new ways of doing things to greatly benefit your company, or whether you doodle and write “I hate my job”, is up to the employee and the company and the relationship that they have.

    (Disclosure: I work for IBM)

  • Great article, i guess your boss wont give you a pat on the back for replying to that client at 10pm but if your work life balance sucks, then your productivity will likely suffer.

    I think most employees just end up wasting more time and resources planning and trying workarounds. Ive worked in some companies where it is upto team leaders/managers and can be a useful reward.

    Social media unlike mobile phones/ipods doesnt stop staff from client interaction and can help build internal support networks between departments. If the shit hits the fan these internal networks can be called upon to assist.

    While the whole cube world seems match cage hens, if they can tweet all day why cant staff?

  • David

    Hi Pat,

    The problem is you can’t account for the actual time you spent working on something because you spent x amount of time socializing — companies don’t pay for you to socialize. Thats almost like bringing friends to work. But, if they set up workstations to do this on legitimate breaks then that might be something. Besides if I have to get on the computer to spend that much time twitting (if its in the office) then I might as well just go to their desk. Or if you need to socialize with people at work then plan a team building outing to catch up with everybody.

  • Old technologies are no longer sexy or a major live distraction: Solitaire no longer qualifies as a strong enough drug to enchant. But other, newer, stronger drugs do call for discipline that we no longer need for Minesweeper and Solitaire.

    I’m really wary of saying “newspapers were never a live threat, but beware of Facebook,” but it is also historically naive to assume that if we’re not much troubled by newspapers, don’t be superstitious enough to worry about Facebook either.

    At a time when some employers are really rough on their employers, I am really glad not only to have a job but to have a boss with a clue: no “you need to work long hours if you’re going to be a valuable and loyal employees”, and yes to paid health club membership and paid volunteer time off. The management and the executives don’t bother to put up posters saying, “Our employees are most valuable asset” and it would be superfluous if they did…

    AND the company treats social media with caution. They know we need to make some personal phone calls and emails, and they may not drop the hammer on every hint of social this-that-or-other, and they treat as easily a potential sink of time, energy, and attention.

    I’m really hesitant to brand my company as stingy and clueless. I use Wikipedia a lot, but I understand how people can spend hours on it, and less productive hours on Facebook.

    Social media can be great, and should probably not be overlooked, but like alcohol they need to be used with discipline, and companies that treat them as potential time sinks are not idiots. I’m wary of saying “Facebook bad,” and maybe SecondLife in the work will make Facebook loose its sexiness and its enchantment… but for now, companies who are concerned about indiscriminate social media use might not be idiots.

  • Using social media sites can be productive, because sometimes you get creative and get important business ideas; but, studies showed that 87% of employees using Facebook at work couldn’t define a clear business reason for using it.

  • Pat – you are right. I like the title “The Productivity Myth” and I don’t possess conclusive proof re: social technologies. Workplace productivity studies in the main show that communication technology (from phone to fax to email) increases worker productivity. I have been around long enough to see any tool that gave workers autonomy (I am thinking of email and instant message here b/c I wasn’t around when phones became a vital part of workplace infrastructure) get called into question by the hierarchy. Mainly I am interested in how the suspicion emanates from a desire to control worker behavior and is often not based on any verifiable evidence. Also – these same employers rarely consider that their workers are often now working after hours due to the same technology. The boundaries between work and home are getting so blurry that “workplace” is a misnomer – every place is a potential place of work.

    Robert Young – Forgive me if you were being facetious and I missed the joke – Could you please reference any links to back up your comment “‘lots of studies’ have shown that the PC in the office has decreased productivity.” Are you actually implying that modern knowledge workers would be better off without computers? Perhaps pen/paper and hanging files and couriers constitute your ultimately productive workplace?

    Johnathan – Amen to you comment – but this is why establishing clear guidelines on performance allows responsible adults to regulate their behavior. If they can’t they won’t meet benchmarks and the employer can take action based on evidence.

  • Future Schema

    The productivity argument is an interesting one because the metrics that are used are really out of the industrial age. How much did I generate in a fixed period of time? Well, if I am building widgets on the line or answering help line calls, then I can point to the volume produced to indicate my productivity.

    If I am trying to solve a problem, my creativity does not occur at a fixed rate, no matter how much I stare at the screen. The first three hours I work on something may be a waste when the real solution hits me in the middle of the day. You take the good with the bad.

    Social networking is valuable for identifying opportunities, vetting ideas and understanding how people are looking at problems. Some jobs are social by their nature, even when they don’t appear to be so, like analysis. Brilliant analysis that can’t be explained or accepted by the audience is simply wasted effort. Social networking tools can help make that socialization process more efficient. Boosting my efficiency makes me more productive, but it is hard to show when management thinks of productivity as widget making.

  • kellybriefworld

    Productivity in the workplace can be hindered but also heightened depending on the usage of a social media application. Companies choose to block or not block social media apps. Unfortunately they are missing out on that grey area where social media apps can be utilized to further innovation and productivity. Palo Alto Networks came out with this whitepaper talking about how to block social media apps and when it is appropriate to let employees utilize these apps productively. To block or not? Check it out: